Kevin Drum

Hardball

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 12:17 PM EST

From First Read:

Democrats don’t play political hardball as well as Republicans do: Want another example of how Republicans play political hardball better than Democrats do? Just look what happened after yesterday’s House vote extending only middle-class tax cuts. We noticed only a few Democratic press releases accusing Republicans of voting against tax cuts for 98% of Americans (and thus accusing them of raising these folks’ taxes). If the shoe had been on the other foot, however, Republicans would have mercilessly pounded Democrats for weeks — if not months. The recent Charlie Rangel and John Ensign stories are instructive here, too. Republicans were relentless that the news of Rangel’s wrongdoings never got dropped. On the other hand, Democrats essentially gave up on Ensign’s woes. And lo and behold, it now looks like Ensign is no longer a Justice Department target. And Rangel's been censured on the House floor. Republicans just play the political message game better than Democrats do.

Maybe a reluctance to play hardball is the issue here. But there are at least two other things involved. The first is simply that Republicans believe their own PR more than Democrats do. When Republicans get hysterical about something, it's genuine. They really believe, way down in their self-righteous little hearts, that they're speaking God's own truth, no matter how ridiculous it is. And it shows.

The other, though, is the media itself: Democrats have long since learned that the media just flatly won't pay attention to ridiculous stuff from them, but they will from Republicans. Republican fervor is contagious, and conservative media has an agenda setting power that liberals just can't match. So why bother?

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Is It Finally Time to Reform the Filibuster?

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The state of Oregon does a helluva job electing senators. We should all be so lucky to have the likes of Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley representing us.

Today I want to highlight Merkley and his proposal to end abuse of the filibuster. Unlike his retiring Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd, who inexplicably decided to use his farewell address this week to produce a defense of the filibuster that could only come from a DC lifer almost comically out of tune with the events of the past few years, Merkley has given the subject some real thought and recently produced some genuinely sharp thinking about it.

For starters, Merkley understands the reality of the modern Republican Party: they don't use the filibuster occasionally to obstruct legislation they feel especially strongly about, they use it "on nearly a daily basis, paralyzing the Senate." What's more, the filibuster isn't just a way of requiring 60 votes to pass legislation. Rather, "the filibuster can be thought of as the power of a single senator to object to the regular order of Senate deliberations, thereby invoking a special order that requires a supermajority and a week delay for a vote."

This is a key point to understand. The modern filibuster requires only one person to invoke it, doesn't require that person to do anything other than announce his intent, and automatically eats up a week or more of time on the Senate calendar even on legislation that's widely popular. Last year, for example, it took the Senate five weeks to approve an extension of unemployment benefits that eventually passed 98-0.

But what to do? There's some question about whether Senate rules can be changed in the middle of a session, but none about whether they can be changed at the beginning of a session. They can be. So in January, if Democrats can muster 51 votes and Vice President Biden is willing to support them by issuing friendly rulings as presiding officer, the filibuster rules can be changed. So what would it take to persuade 51 Democrats to go along?

Merkley's proposal revolves around a single principle: the Senate should always allow debate. So the filibuster should be banned entirely on motions to proceed and on amendments because both are things that promote debate and engagement. Filibusters would still be allowed on a bill's final vote, but it would take more than one senator to launch a filibuster (Merkley suggests a minimum of ten) and senators would have to actually hold the floor and talk. No longer would a single person be able to obstruct all business just by dropping a note to his party leader.

And in return? The minority party would have one of its major grievances addressed: the ability to offer amendments to legislation. Merkley proposes that unless a different agreement is reached prior to a bill coming to the floor, each side would be allowed to introduce five amendments of their own choosing. No longer could the majority leader "fill the amendment tree" or otherwise prohibit the minority party from trying to amend legislation. This fits with his broad principle that debate and engagement with legislation is a good thing. The minority party might choose to offer mischevious or blatantly political amendments, but that's their choice. They also have the choice of genuinely trying to improve legislation and getting a majority of their colleagues to pass it.

Merkley has a few other proposals as well, but this is the gist of it. It's a pretty good plan, and a pretty sensible one. It doesn't eliminate the filibuster, it just eliminates filibuster abuse. And in return, the minority party gets an expanded ability to engage in a positive way with any legislation on the floor. In January, the Democratic leadership, the rank-and-file of the party, and the White House ought to give serious thought to starting the 112th Congress with the long-overdue reforms that Merkley proposes.

The Latest From Glenn B.

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 12:23 AM EST

Email of the day, from a regular correspondent:

Glenn Beck was in rare form last night....For all practical purposes, he claimed that the fall of the Roman Republic — and the roots of the Roman Empire and its version of National Socialism — was precipitated by redistribution of wealth, by land-grab from the rich that was then given to the poor. This is so preposterously stupid, I believe the only reason that we don't hear of mass suicides of historians during Beck's broadcasts is because historians simply don't watch the show.

....If you have a chance to get hold of the recording, this one is really worth watching. Needless to say, you will learn something you never knew — and probably should never know, if it were not so much fun... I've had a two month break from the daily barrage as I had no TV while away from home, but, judging from what I've seen earlier in the year, I would nominate this one the Episode of the Year. If you recall the BBC show Connections, it was exactly like that — except that the script and the plans were prepared by those proverbial monkeys typing Shakespeare.

Well, two months away from Glenn Beck is like two decades away from any normal person. To me, this sounds like a pretty standard episode. Still, it's good to see that Beck is working his way backward through history. The Victorian stuff was getting tedious. Soon we should be able to get his take on whether the invention of agriculture was a great leap forward for capitalism or the beginning of the end of human history. It could go either way depending on which pamphlet catches his eye next.

Afghanistan Shocker: Corruption is Rampant

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 7:04 PM EST

According to the New York Times, embassy cables from Afghanistan describe it as a "looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest man is a distinct outlier." But hey — at least there are occasional victories. Remember the mayor of Kabul, who got tossed in jail for stealing government funds a while ago?

In a seeming victory against corruption, Abdul Ahad Sahibi, the mayor of Kabul, received a four-year prison sentence last year for “massive embezzlement.” But a cable from the embassy told a very different story: Mr. Sahibi was a victim of “kangaroo court justice,” it said, in what appeared to be retribution for his attempt to halt a corrupt land-distribution scheme.

....The case of the Kabul mayor, Mr. Sahibi, shows how complicated it can be to sort out corruption charges. A Jan. 7 cable [...] said the charges against him were based on a decision to lease a piece of city property to shopkeepers. Three months after the lease was signed, another bidder offered $16,000 more. The “loss” of the potential additional revenue became the “massive embezzlement” described by prosecutors, the cable said.

....As for the motive behind his prosecution, Mr. Sahibi said that in less than two years as mayor “he had found files for approximately 32,000 applicants who paid for nonexistent plots of land in Kabul city.” He said he halted the land program and “invalidated the illegal claims of some important people,” who took their revenge through the bogus criminal case. The embassy cable largely supported Mr. Sahibi’s version of events, saying that the mayor’s “official decision may have antagonized powerful people who then sought the power of the state to discredit him.”

And remember: your tax dollars and the lives of your fellow citizens are going to defend all this. Gives you a warm glow all over, doesn't it?

Who Gets Blamed for Higher Taxes?

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 3:36 PM EST

Jon Chait responds today to a David Leonhardt column suggesting the Democrats will inevitably get blamed if the Bush tax cuts expire and everyone's taxes go up:

The idea here is that, if taxes go up, Democrats will get stuck with the blame because everybody knows Republicans hate taxes. It's not that Democrats wimped out, it's that any party has to tread carefully on an issue where the other party holds a historic advantage. I think that's the wrong analysis for a couple reasons.

....The fact is, blame for failing to extend the popular elements of the Bush tax cuts should be placed on Republicans. They're the ones who won't extend a bill like that without getting something (unpopular) in exchange. Instead, Democrats have simply assumed that they'll get stuck with the blame and there's nothing they can do about it.

Jon provides some specific reasons for thinking Dems won't get the blame here, but we actually have a test case we can look at to see if he's right: repeal of the 1099 reporting requirement. Democrats offered up a clean amendment a few days ago that would have ended the 1099 requirement and nothing more. No tricks, no gimmicks, just straight repeal. Most Democrats voted for it, but the amendment failed because nearly the entire Republican caucus voted against it.

So: who gets the blame for the fact that the reporting requirement is still around? It ought to be Republicans, who had a chance to vote for repeal and decided not to. But I haven't noticed any backlash. If I had to guess, it's because everyone knows Republicans are opposed to business regulation, so Democrats get the blame for this regardless of whether they really are to blame.

This is just a tiny little data point. And I agree with Jon's larger argument that, in the case of taxes at least, Democrats could have won the battle easily if they'd shown a little discipline and been willing to bargain with the same toughness that Republicans do. Still, in its own tiny way, the 1099 example does suggest that Republicans aren't likely to shoulder any of the blame for higher taxes regardless of what position they take over the next couple of weeks.

Chart of the Day: Tax Cut Fever

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 1:47 PM EST

Speaking of tax cuts, I thought everyone should see a nice picture that compares the Obama position with the Republican position. As you can see, under the Obama plan (in blue) everyone gets a tax cut. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, your average middle class household gets a cut of $916. An upper middle class household gets $3,766. A millionaire household gets $6,349. Money for everyone!

But that's not enough. The red lines roughly show the additional tax cuts under the Republican plan. Everyone making up to $250,000 gets nothing. But the tiny number of households above that threshold get huge pots of money, and the pots get bigger the more money they make. I don't have enough room on the blog to show it properly, but millionaire households get an extra $100,000 or so over and above what they'd get from Obama's broad tax cut.

That's what we're fighting over: a broad tax cut with something for everybody, or a broad tax cut plus an extra bonus for the upper middle class and an extra super duper bonus for the millionaire class. That's what the Republican Party has unanimously staked its future to.

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Barack Obama: President, not King

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 12:59 PM EST

Email from a moderate lefty friend:

We crossed the Tipping Point yesterday. Last night L told me she's "over" Obama and thinks he's in over his head, politically. Up until yesterday, she was a die-hard supporter/defender. I'm nearly there.

I don't think he or his advisors have any idea how fast his supporters are fleeing. It reminds me — painfully — of Carter, circa 1979. Obama's about one "killer rabbit" away from certain defeat by any Republican, including Palin.

Easy solution: eliminate middle class payroll taxes and/or reduce tax rate on first $250K to as close to zero as possible and tax everything north of that at 40%, including dividends and capital gains.

Apropos of last night's post, I told him to wait until January to see what Obama is really made of. But it reminds me of something else, and I don't remember for sure if I've blogged about this. That's the problem with our modern cornucopia of communications channels. Maybe I tweeted this. Maybe I said it in a talk. Maybe I emailed about it. Or maybe I've already blogged it ten times and just forgotten about it. Who knows?

But anyway, here it is: Obama is a president, not a king. On taxes, for example, his position has been steady and clear all along: extend the broad tax cuts but kill the cuts aimed solely at the rich.

So why hasn't it happened? Because of opposition from within his own party. A tax bill could have been passed by reconciliation in the Senate, but for some reason it wasn't. It could have been passed in the House, but a combination of Blue Dogs and fainthearted centrists afraid of attack ads blocked it. And as much as we all like to pine for the days of LBJ and the "treatment," those days are long gone. It's genuinely not clear what kind of leverage Obama has over recalcitrant members of Congress. Not a lot, in any case.

I figure that Obama probably could have done more, but I'm not absolutely sure of that. What really happened was a failure of the Democratic caucus in Congress. That doesn't make as juicy a target, but it's a more accurate one. In this case, blame the party, not the president.

Republicans for New START

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 2:37 AM EST

Five Republican secretaries of state who served the last five Republican presidents all say the Senate should approve the New START arms control treaty:

It is a modest and appropriate continuation of the START I treaty that expired almost a year ago. It reduces the number of nuclear weapons that each side deploys while enabling the United States to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent and preserving the flexibility to deploy those forces as we see fit....The defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Missile Defense Agency — all originally appointed by a Republican president — argue that New START is essential for our national defense.

....Whenever New START is brought up for debate, we encourage all senators to focus on national security. There are plenty of opportunities to battle on domestic political issues linked to the future of the American economy. With our country facing the dual threats of unemployment and a growing federal debt bomb, we anticipate significant conflict between Democrats and Republicans. It is, however, in the national interest to ratify New START.

I have two questions: First, how can this possibly be a difficult vote for Republican senators? It should be a no-brainer. Second, what happened to Condoleezza Rice? Every other living Republican secretary of state signed onto this op-ed. Why didn't she?

Obama 2.0

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 7:00 PM EST

Ezra Klein has a good post up today about Barack Obama's inexplicable ongoing dedication to bipartisanship in the face of mountains of evidence that Republicans simply have no interest in negotiating with him. It ends with this:

The White House's critics think the proof is in the election. Democrats just got "shellacked." Obama gained absolutely nothing by seeming more reasonable than his opponents. In fact, the Republicans ran some notably unreasonable candidates and still won the election. The question, they say, isn't why Obama wants this strategy to work. It's when he'll admit that it's failed.

I'll repeat something here that I said at a talk I gave last weekend: basically, Obama has another two or three weeks to prove he's not an idiot. During the lame duck session, a continuing public dedication to bipartisanship might make sense because there may still be a few bills that he can pass with just a few Republican votes. And it's easier to get those votes if he's not out in the Rose Garden every day telling the world that Republicans are all obstructionist assholes.

But — starting next year that won't be true anymore. Republicans will control the House, and in the Senate it will take a significant chunk of the GOP caucus to get anything passed. Sweet talking Olympia Snowe will no longer even arguably be a viable strategy. Obama's only hope is to draw dramatic contrasts with Republican orthodoxy, call them out relentlessly on their obstructionism and corporate obeisance, and try to rally public opinion to his side. It might not work, but there's no better alternative.

Obama's legislative strategy was defensible during his first two years because it might have been his best opportunity to peel off a few votes here and there and get stuff passed. But if he keeps it up next year, he's just being willfully blind. Next year is put-up-or-shut-up time.

Party Discipline

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 6:03 PM EST

Dan Foster tweets:

Cornyn tells @NRO that "all incumbents" that voted against earmarks ban "need to be prepared for primaries."

John Cornyn is the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Can you even imagine his Democratic counterpart saying something like that? Any Democratic counterpart? And no, alternate universes don't count.